The story is in the numbers.
The rumors and projections of the NFL's slide into a passing-obsessed league existed for years, but the 2011 season provided clear proof, black and white, clear as crystal that a new era was upon us already. And was here to stay.
Last year, the NFL became arena football. After only two quarterbacks in league history had thrown for 5,000 yards, three did it in 2011, with a fourth falling less than 100 yards short. Drew Brees smashed the single-season passing yards record. Tom Brady broke it also. Matthew Stafford—who came into this season needing to prove he could even play a full season—is now fifth on the all-time list.
NFL defenses are getting shredded, week after week, by teams that pass on first down, second down and third down. To build a good defense means to find a way to stop the pass.
The two are one and the same. And new rules and over-officiating against defenses protect the receivers and make coverage difficult, or even—depending on the referee—damn near impossible.
The buzz around the NFL draft is showing that teams are finding an answer, however. It's the pass rush. Make it harder to throw the ball than to catch it. Stop the quarterback, and you stop the passing game before it starts.
The names being thrown around as speculated first-rounders show that this theory is receiving widespread consideration. Mock drafts are brimming with skilled finesse rushers or explosive pocket collapsers.
Edge-rushing linebackers and high-motor defensive ends are being valued for how well they do one thing: Put the quarterback on the ground, and keep him there.
In his latest mock draft, B/R draft analyst Matt Miller has six defensive ends or outside linebackers going in the first round, and there are other players, such as Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict, who have received ample first-round buzz.
Those players expected to go high, Alabama's Courtney Upshaw or South Carolina's Melvin Ingram for example, are among the more highly-sought names in the draft pool, and it's easy to understand why. They get to the quarterback.
North Carolina's Quinton Coples has raised red flags due to his work ethic and is, by the media's implications, a real pain in the butt. But in every mock draft, there he is in the top 10. Why? Because when he gets going, he gets to the quarterback.
Several cornerbacks, such as LSU's Morris Claiborne and Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick, are generating rave reviews in their scouting reports as well. But corner is a more difficult position to bank on. The skills don't translate as easily, and today's rule book makes traditional pass defense far more questionable than it used to be.
Cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis, who follow their man like a shadow every play, are very few and very far between. A corner can play the ball perfectly today and get flagged for what really is incidental contact. The NFL isn't a passing league by accident.
But the rules haven't changed for rushers. The ways to beat linemen in the past work just as well now. There are stricter rules concerning hitting the quarterback, but that's forced linebackers and ends to change how they tackle. Not how they rush. Cornerbacks have had to change the way they cover.
With the passing game having grown into a schematic force, the pass rush has emerged as the best way to stop it.
It's no coincidence that the New York Giants, with an excellent rush, were the Super Bowl champions, or that they knocked off the pass-happy Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots along the way.
So teams are stocking up on pass rushers, and they'll continue to do so. It also helps that there are plenty of quality players coming out this year that have getting to the quarterback at the top of their skill set.
The explosion of the passing game has become a nightmare for defensive coordinators. The best way to fight it is to end the attack before it starts.